We all know that too much drinking isn’t good for us. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to risky behaviors, impaired judgment and health issues such as liver disease. But did you know there is a link between alcohol and cancer? That’s right. Research shows that alcohol increases the risk for the following cancers:

  • Mouth and throat
  • Esophageal
  • Larynx
  • Colorectal
  • Liver
  • Breast in women

According to the National Cancer Institute, evidence suggests that the more alcohol a person drinks—particularly the more a person drinks regularly over time—the higher the risk of getting an alcohol-associated cancer. Even moderate or light drinkers (those who have no more than one drink per day) and those who may not drink regularly, but occasionally binge drink, have an increased risk of some cancers.

Surprised? You’re not alone. Lots of people are not aware of the link between alcohol consumption and cancer. According to a 2017 survey by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), fewer than one in three adults identified alcohol as a risk factor for cancer.

The conversation about the alcohol-cancer link can be a sensitive one, says Nisreen Haideri, MD, a medical oncologist/hematologist with Sarah Cannon at Overland Park Regional Medical Center part of the HCA Midwest Health hospital system. But it is a necessary one from an education and health perspective. The fact remains that the less you drink, the lower your risk for some cancers.

“The ASCO advises that alcohol drinking is an established risk factor for several malignancies, so we view it a as a potentially modifiable risk factor for cancer,” she says. “If you ask an oncologist, there is no safe limit for alcohol, but we also understand it’s hard to eliminate or sometimes even cut back on long-standing habits. If alcohol is something a person is unwilling to give up totally, moderation is important.”

What exactly is moderate drinking?

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate drinking means no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two per day for men. To put in simpler terms, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “one drink” equates to approximately:

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 8-9 ounces of malt liquor
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces, or a “shot,” of 80-proof distilled spirits (liquor)

Heavy drinking for women equates to four or more drinks on any day or eight or more drinks per week. For men, it means five or more drinks on any day or 15 or more drinks per week. And binge drinking for women is consuming four or more drinks in one sitting, generally about two hours, and five or more for men in one sitting.

“We know that alcohol use has been associated with increased risk for several types of cancer, with heavy drinking associated with the highest risk,” Dr. Haideri says, “but even among light and moderate drinkers, some studies have indicated a trend toward an increased cancer risk, even without a history of smoking.”

The CDC, physicians and the ASCO advise that if you do not drink, don’t start. Any potential health benefits cited for alcohol consumption (i.e. reducing the risk of heart disease) may not apply to everyone, and don’t outweigh the risks of alcohol.”

“People who don’t drink, or who prefer to avoid alcohol, should definitely not start consuming alcohol solely for the purpose of lowering their risk of heart disease,” Dr. Haideri stresses. “Patients who drink moderately may experience benefits for their health, but on the other hand, it certainly can enhance their risk of certain cancers.”

How alcohol increases your chances of cancer

Every alcoholic drink contains ethanol (ethyl alcohol.) When we drink, our bodies break down the ethanol into a chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a probable carcinogen and can cause cancer by damaging DNA and not allowing our cells to repair the damage. Alcohol is also thought to impair our ability to break down and absorb nutrients such as vitamins A, B complex, C, D and E.

Smoking and drinking—a double dose of risk

While tobacco use and alcohol individually are linked to cancer, the two together significantly raise the risk of some cancers. According to the National Cancer Institute, studies show people who use both alcohol and tobacco have much greater risk of developing oral, throat, voice box and esophagus than those who use either one alone.

Does it lower the risk of cancer to stop drinking?

While stopping alcohol use will lower cancer risks, it’s not an immediate benefit. Studies show it takes some time, perhaps even years for someone to return to the risk level of a person who never drank.

The bottom line

Knowing that the less you drink, the lower your risk of some cancers, Dr. Haideri says, if you don’t drink, don’t start. If you do, drink in moderation.

Cancer expertise

The Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health offers specialized expertise and experience for patients with all types of cancer. Our physicians are board certified in medical oncology, radiation oncology and other specialties and supported by experienced nurses, counselors, dietitians, social workers and others. Whether you have been diagnosed with cancer or want to reduce your risk of cancer, are currently in treatment or are in survivorship, we offer the expert care you need.

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